Diagnosed with rare condition, she gave birth not knowing if she'd live

Just six months into her pregnancy, Jennifer Chase was thrust into a fight for her and her baby's life.

As she entered her third trimester last summer, Chase, 37, began experiencing dizzy spells, neck stiffness and double vision. She thought the symptoms were a normal part of pregnancy, but her doctors ordered an MRI to be sure. The scan revealed an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) deep inside her brain — a dangerous tangle of arteries and veins that, if left untreated, could burst, possibly killing her and the baby.

Her case was rare: AVMs affect less than 1 percent of the general population, the American Stroke Association estimates. Doctors don't know what causes the tangles to form.

"It was a complete shock. It was very surreal," Chase, who lives in Parkersburg, West Virginia, told TODAY.

"It was a lot of the unknown, which was quite frightening and scary," her husband Chris added.

Jennifer Chase was diagnosed with an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) during her pregnancy.

Chase was referred to the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, where doctors discovered she had one of the most dangerous types of AVM: a very large blood vessel that was putting pressure on her brain stem. The next decision was "a little bit of a catch-22," said Dr. Mark Bain, a cerebrovascular neurosurgeon at the Cleveland Clinic.

"The longer we waited, the more risk there was to Jennifer and for the AVM to rupture, especially because it was becoming more and more symptomatic," Bain noted. "On the other hand, the longer we could wait, the better it was for Jennifer's baby."

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Childbirth over the years
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Childbirth over the years
A woman being helped to give birth, on a birth chair, by two midwives, each pulling on a cloth wrapped around the mother's belly, California, USA, circa 1840. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Albert the Great, De Animalibus, folio 145, Difficult childbirth, 15th, FranceParis, Bibliotheque Nationale. (Photo by Photo12/UIG/Getty Images)
A wet nurse holds a newborn baby surrounded by the birth mother and the new siblings. (Photo by Jonathan Kirn/Corbis via Getty Images)
Lucy Baldwin (1869 - 1945, centre), the wife of former British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, with a baby born by caesarean section, at Queen Charlotte's Hospital, London, 7th February 1930. With her are the surgeon (left) and anaesthetist, who performed the operation. Baldwin is the founder of the Anaesthetics Appeal Fund of the National Birthday Trust Fund (N.B.T.F.), which campaigns for wider provision of analgesia in childbirth. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
July 1939: In an effort to make childbirth as painless as possible, a patient inhales analgesia during labour whilst a nurse looks over her. (Photo by London Express/Getty Images)
Soldier's Son: Pregnancy And Childbirth In Wartime, Bristol, England, 1942, Sister Gwendoline Murphy hands a screaming two-day-old Peter Winston Stacey to his mother Irene for feeding at Southmead Hospital in Bristol. The babies sleep in multiple cots in the nursery and are brought back to their mothers at feeding time, 7 September 1942. (Photo by Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer/ IWM via Getty Images)
Three pyjama-clad little boys are introduced to their newborn baby sister, Janet Lewington, by the midwife after a home delivery in Mottingham, Kent, 4th August 1946. Original Publication : Picture Post - 4201 - A Baby Is Born At Home - pub. 31st August 1946 (Photo by Merlyn Severn/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A nurse in the maternity unit of a hospital keeps an eye on the pressure from the oxygen cyclinder, as they care for a lillte baby girl. January 1949. (Photo by Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)
An expectant mother using an inhaler to take the pain killing drug trilene during labour, watched by a hospital midwife. 29th March 1949. (Photo by Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)
A nurse handing a newly born baby to its mother, 1956. Original Publication: Picture Post - 9111 - Analgesia - unpub. (Photo by Grace Robertson/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
28th May 1965: Three pregnant women relax in medical 'space-suits' in an attempt to ease childbirth and raise the intelligence of their offspring. A suction pump next to the chairs lowers pressure inside the suits, while a gauge in front of them gives a constant reading. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: Felix Gaillard, His Wife And Her Daughter Isabelle In 1958. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
The newly born Letts quintuplets in their incubators at University College Hospital. Father John Letts surveys his instant family of quintuplets as they lie in their incubators at University College Hospital. December 1969 Z12130-010 (Photo by WATFORD/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)
Midwife May Guthrie-Lacy photographs the 287th baby which she has delivered at Lytham Hospital. Two day old Nicola Manton and her mother 23 year old Christine will join all the others happy snaps in May Lacy's albums. December 1969 Z12345-002 (Photo by WATFORD/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)
The Davis quintuplets and their parents, Jerry and Debbie Davis, pose for a family portrait, their first since the quintuplets' birth on July 18. The quintuplets' names are (left to right) Christa LeJune, Casey Clifton (the only boy), Chanda Jannae, Charla Rae Ann, and Chelsa Lynnae.
JUN 4 1977, JUN 14 1977; St. Luke's Hospital (Gen) Birthing Room.; (Photo By Ernie Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Maternity Department, Tenon Hospital In Paris, France. (Photo By BSIP/UIG Via Getty Images)
CANADA - JANUARY 08: New to the world: Mary Dininio of Stroud; Ont.; laughs with joy yesterday moments after giving birth to son Myles; as husband Michael looks on at Women's College Hospital. (Photo by Keith Beaty/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Chase was concerned about all the health problems that could arise if her baby were born premature. But her AVM could burst at any moment, so a team of neurosurgeons, anesthesiologists and high-risk obstetrics doctors had to figure out the proper solution. Time was Chase's enemy, but her unborn son's friend.

Jennifer Chase was diagnosed with an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) during her pregnancy

The final plan took a couple of days to execute.

On Aug. 24, some 29 weeks into her pregnancy, Chase went in for a C-section not knowing if she'd live through it. To watch for any signs of trouble during the delivery, doctors drilled a small hole in her skull and inserted a "bolt" — a monitor that would allow them to observe the cerebrospinal fluid pressure in her brain. Any spike would serve as a warning that the AVM was worsening.

"I could just hear [the drill] going into my skull. I could hear the crunching of the bone," Chase recalled. "You do what you have to do for your baby."

Meanwhile, her husband was pacing in the waiting room, nervously awaiting the birth of his son while worrying about losing his wife.

"I just had to keep the faith. That's really the only thing that got me through [without] just completely breaking down," he recalled. "I had to be strong for her. I had to be strong for him."

Jennifer Chase was diagnosed with an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) during her pregnancy, and her baby.

Chase was fully sedated for the C-section and minutes later, the couple had Wesley, their 3-pound bundle of joy. The preemie was whisked off to the neonatal intensive care unit.

The next day, doctors took care of Chase's AVM in another high-risk surgery. They inserted a small tube through an artery in her groin, maneuvered it through her body to get as close to the tangle of blood vessels in her brain as possible, and injected the AVM with a material that sealed off the malformation. The operation was a success.

Chase was home in West Virginia soon after, but the baby had to stay behind in the NICU at the Cleveland Clinic. Some 45 days later, the Chases finally took Wesley home.

Today, Chase is still feeling the after-effects of the surgery, experiencing intense headaches and double vision. But a follow-up angiogram last week showed her AVM is still cured and gone. Her symptoms are normal, doctors said.

"There is a vein there that was probably the size of a very small lemon in the back of her head. That vein over time has to sort of resolve and there is some inflammation involved in that," Bain noted.

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The doctor expects Chase to live a long and normal life following the treatment.

Wesley is a happy, healthy baby and the couple is looking forward to the family's first Mother's Day together.

"We are so very blessed," Chase said. "It couldn't have gone better considering the horrible things that could have happened."

"We both knew that we're going to do whatever it takes to make sure she's healthy and make sure he's healthy," her husband added. "We got through the storm. We came out on the other side and the sun was shining. And you couldn't ask for anything better that."

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